It takes a bona fide film star to get something like Maleficent made (even if not just in this day and age), and while there aren't that many these days, Angelina Jolie's public image more than fits the bill. But, as always with Hollywood tentpoles, a film star by herself can't save below-par material or flawed executions. This revisionist take on the story of the curse-casting villainess in Sleeping Beauty could have made for an intriguing film, but the result is a (perhaps unwitting) future camp classic, a compendium of how to waste a perfectly good premise on a dismal object.
The fault isn't Ms Jolie's: she is pitch perfect as Maleficent, the determined guardian of the enchanted kingdom of Moors, whose betrayal at the hands of future king Stefan (Sharlto Copley) turns her into the vengeful, cruel witch of the fairy tale. The actress moves effortlessly from charm and kindness to poisonous, playful wit and sorrowful thoughtfulness, giving Maleficent the right amount of seriousness without ever losing sight that her performance needs a fair amount of humour to work, and always making sure the audience - whether grown-up or young - is with her every step of the way.
The problem is elsewhere. Debuting helmer Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning designer and effects artist who has worked with James Cameron and Tim Burton, doesn't follow Ms. Jolie's lead and over-eggs the pudding, the decorative, baroque set designs, flamboyant swooping shots and the visual bombast continuously distracting the viewer. The actress is creating a character, shading it as much as she can; the director seems more interested in supplying ideas for possible theme park rides. What comes out is a stilted, awkward film that wants to touch as many bases as it could be (family fantasy, female empowerment drama, parable of maternity) but ultimately falls short of all of them, wanting to have its cake and eat it too but tripping over itself in the process.
There is a more nuanced and less simplistic revision of the villain role in a Disney fairy tale here, as some critics have correctly noted. But it quickly gets buried in the blockbuster spectacle requirements that drown any subtlety Maleficent might aspire to, wasting a wonderful supporting cast in almost non-existent roles (Elle Fanning has, literally, nothing to do as the super-sweet Aurora, and it's shameful to have Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville only to give them farcical pantomime roles). It's a charmless reworking, worth seeing only for Ms. Jolie's performance - one that disproves the need for any further special effects.
Cast Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Director Robert Stromberg; screenwriter Linda Woolverton; based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault Sleeping Beauty and on the Walt Disney adaptation by Erdman Penner; cinematographer Dean Semler (colour, widescreen); composer James Newton Howard; designers Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole; costumes Anna B. Sheppard; editors Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson; effects supervisor Carey Villegas; special make-up Rick Baker; producer Joe Roth; production companies Walt Disney Studios and Roth Films
Screened June 4th 2014 (distributor press screening, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon)